Monday, July 28, 2008

Lyn Hejinian: Slowly

Slowly, Lyn Hejinian (Tuumba Press, 2002)


I’m always trying to catch up on my Hejinian-reading. Slowly is a short long poem, published by Hejinian’s own Tuumba Press (resurrected? – dunno, but I miss those wonderful letterpress chapbooks from the old days). As the title would indicate, it’s a poem about – or revolving around, or formally built upon – the adverb. I can’t help thinking of all those workshop strictures on adverbs – I’ve thrown them around myself – you know, “if you’re using an adverb that means you haven’t found the right verb,” “avoid adverbs, they drain energy from your language,” etc. So there’s some foundational cheekiness here I quite like. Of course, what LH’s really interested in, & what gets tracked thru all those adverbs (yes, “slowly” appears quite often) is the process of perception, how the world comes to us modified by our senses, by the various grids & seines of our consciousness that can be represented on one level by the shorthand of the adverb. Much of the book’s in a series of the sort of paratactic, present-tense declarative sentences that I associate with some of Barrett Watten’s & Ron Silliman’s work. So much so that it’s a kind of major event when Hejinian shifts into the past tense for a run of lines. A brow-furrowing read.

Graham Foust: Necessary Stranger

Necessary Stranger, Graham Foust (Flood Editions, 2007)


My last Foust post got pilloried in ways that I didn’t really have the energy to respond to, except to say that all I meant to imply by name-dropping all those “short-line short-poem” poets along with Foust was that (as I said) the form bears specific dangers & possible rewards, which can fall under various epithets: the “gnomic,” the “epitaphic,” “brevity as the soul of wit” – or the “portentous,” the “squib” – and so forth. When you put a small thing – a set of words, a splotch of color, a cluster of tones – in the midst of a big stretch of nothing – white paper, blank canvas, silence – you automatically place a heavy weight of readerly / viewerly / auditorial attention on that something. The poetics of the haiku, or of nouvelle cuisine.

Problem I’ve always had with writing about poetry is that I tend to want to describe what’s new to me in terms of what’s familiar. And since I was trained as a formalist, I tend to think in terms of the gross physical forms of poems. Don’t mean to imply that Foust’s short-lined, short lyrics are equal to (or better than, or not as good as) Creeley’s or Ammons's or whoever’s – that needs to be settled on a poem-by-poem, collection-by-collection basis – if indeed one wants to spend the energy “settling” it. But the problem (or tactic) of semantic isolation & the concomitant semantic weight placed on the poem is common to everyone I named, however awkwardly or gracefully they negotiate it.

I like the poems of Necessary Stranger, Foust’s 3rd collection, a trifle better than As in Every Deafness. If anything, they’re a bit more mannered than the earlier book – still given to terms of really unexpected weirdness, but with a few elements I didn’t detect in the 1st outing. For one thing, there’s a lot more open intertextuality of the “high culture” sort, hat-tipping to other, earlier poems (mostly, unsurprisingly, in a subversive manner). And then there’s a new sort of minimalist groove going on – minimalist in the repetitive, Steve Reichian sense – the repetition of phrases & words within individual poems. All this, plus a kind of general broadening of Foust’s scope & language in general, shows that he’s not a poet who’s standing still.

(“Critical equipoise”?!? I know what you mean, Curtis – I call it my “bullshit hat” – but I have enough trouble piggybacking my 4 year old without toppling over to worry about “critical equipoise.”)

Friday, July 25, 2008

not dead yet...

Well, I'd had no intention of prolonging that blip of a hiatus into a regular furlough, but these things happen; as Zukofsky says somewhere, "this is after all vacation..." And so much to write about: books by Lyn Hejinian, Lisa Fishman, (more) Graham Foust; the dangers of wobbly dinner tables & adjacent book stacks; Proust; & Culture Industry's 100,000th visit (!). Still blogging from the mobile at the moment, but will try to get some real posts in before we leave for Sweden (!) next week.

Friday, July 11, 2008

technical difficulties...

Well, I'd like to jump right into this comment-thread discussion, but we're headed out to Fire Island this weekend (keeping my eyes peeled for dune buggies, as always), the DSL's been out all day, & I just don't have the under-18-crowd's thumb dexterity for cellphone blogging. So I'll see you all in a few days.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Graham Foust: As in Every Deafness

As in Every Deafness, Graham Foust (Flood Editions, 2003)


The short-lined free verse lyric, as pioneered in the 20th century by such folks as Zukofsky, Williams, Robert Creeley, AR Ammons, Cid Corman, Frank Samperi, etc., runs its own set of risks & offers its own rewards. Both risks & rewards are on display in Graham Foust's first full-length collection.

By "short-lined lyric," of course, I mean something distinct from a merely short line, which can serve as the formal basis for much longer works (LZ's "A"-19, for instance, or Samperi's or Ammons's various long poems): I mean a brief poem,  rarely two full pages, in which the lines tend to hover around a 4-word average, in which the proportion of blank space to printed paper is at times overwhelming. Mallarmé's Un coup de dés was the 1st great verbal exploration the aesthetics of the isolated mark against the void of the blank page, but the weight of silence or nullity has long been an obsession of contemporary arts – think Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Brian Eno's Music for Airports, & any number of 20th-century visual artists.

The most obvious effect of writing poems that are shards of language marooned in a sea of white paper – or scattered stars shining out of an otherwise empty sky, choose your metaphor – is that an almost unbearable weight is placed upon what few words do appear. At least this is the case in Foust's poems, which almost never have the insouciant, tossed-off quality of so many of Creeley's short lyrics. They're composed, sometimes almost painfully so.

More often than not, the poems work. Foust has a very good ear, and as importantly a strong – tho not unerring – sense for the off-balance, the off-kilter & incomplete that saves them from becoming Bronkian reports on reality or Cormanesque cuff-jottings. I sense that Celan is a tempting model for Foust, as well – Celan, the singular master who's led so many young American poets into dead-ends of laconic portentousness – but Foust has a wonderfully light touch that enable him to nod to the German poet without falling into his gravitational black hole. As in Every Deafness – dark poems, but with a wry, slanted darkness that makes the reader smile uneasily, lines stuck in her or his head.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Turner; Bacchae + Rocky Horror

Finally yesterday, a full week into the visit, a bit of kulchur. At the Metropolitan Museum, a large JMW Turner exhibit. I'd never seen so many of his canvases in one place, & was frankly blown away by the mastery, the intensity. I begin to see – as I never really could, judging only by reproductions – what so excited Ruskin in the work.
Then to Lincoln Center, for the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae. Alan Cumming is the big draw here (overheard one of the ushers telling a patron, "enjoy Alan!"), the radiantly wry and omnisexual Scottish actor whose reinvention of the Emcee character was one of the highlights of the recent revival of Cabaret. (Other than that, I've only seen him as the null-set villain Saturninus in Julie Taymor's Titus.) As Dionysus, Cumming is resplendent in gold lamé (!) kilt and vest, giving his thick Scots accent full throttle as he leers his way thru the action. (Of course, the character he most resembles here, oddly enough, is Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter, from Rocky Horror.)

The Bacchae themselves are 9 gospel singers; they deliver their choruses both in speech & in song, & it's that songs that at times come close to sinking the show. A couple of them are excellent; most are all right, tho less than inspired; a few are instantly forgettable. Worst is when Cumming/Dionysus himself sings, fronting the Bacchae like a late-70s Thin White Duke in a skirt. It's moments like this that require a strong & distinctive set of pipes – Bowie himself, or Luther Vandross, or even Cumming's compatriot (& near contemporary) Chris Connelly – & Cumming just isn't a very good singer at all.

But on the whole it was a fabulous show, bringing the tragedy into the present as far too few contemporary productions of Greek drama do. Makes me hanker for that big 4-volume set of the Grene/Lattimore Greek Tragedies (back in Florida) I splurged on a few weeks ago.
Lunch with Mike Heller & Jane Augustine the other day, a flying moment with them before they're off to their summer digs in Colorado. A nice time – Barney Greengrass is indeed the Sturgeon King, but I'm afraid I'm not enough of a New Yorker to pine for said fish more than once or twice a year; especially at $17 the appetizer plate.

Many projects breathing down my neck; will be good to get the girls back into their day camp tomorrow.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

ripostes & fiddles

L'affaire Kleinzahler slowly fades. Bradley at The Ethical Exhibitionist has a very nice, longish post on The Poem of a Life, & why Stinky-Feet Augie's review is wrongheaded. (Full disclosure: B is a colleague of mine, & we've hoisted a few drinks together – but as anyone in academia can tell you, such relationships doesn't mean you actually read each other's books, much less like 'em.) 

And Bill Sherman at Friends of Fayaway (gotta love that title – it reminds me of my dad's old small-format 1940s-era paperback of Typee, with its only slightly salacious native-girls illustrations) posts a letter from Leon Lewis in re/ the Kleinzahler review, which the LRB didn't see fit to print. Surprise surprise.
New scientific study purports to prove why Stradivarii are still the best violins. (By way of Don Share.) Paul Zukofsky says humph!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

K. Lorraine Graham: Terminal Humming

Hey, it's hot here in New York! Really hot. Everybody sweats. (Nobody sweats in South Florida, because the walk from the air-conditioned SUV to the air-conditioned inside environment is so short; oh, wait, I'm only thinking about people in Boca Raton...)
Terminal Humming, K. Lorraine Graham (Slack Buddha Press/La Perruque Editions, 2004)


The title of Graham's chapbook, judging from the cover art – the instantly recognizable "male/female" bathroom icons, flanking the highway icon indicating an airport – would seem to refer to the exhilarating babel of conversations, languages, & linguistic registers in which one is immersed at the airport. And Graham's poems, which consistently surprise & delight, beautifully capture the effect of the constantly shifting, densely cross-grained linguistic environment of any public place in the early 21st century. But the title bears darker implications: that the "humming" of voices which surround us is an index of the late Capital's "terminal" status, that the "white noise" of our environment – as in DeLillo – is no more or less than a numbingly complex death rattle. The opener, "Love Poem," encapsulates the American consumerist libido:
And I want
And I want
And I want baaaaah